Message development and delivery: learning from top politicians in the European referendum debate




Neil Bayley

I recently attended The Spectator’s Brexit debate, hosted at the London Palladium in front of a 2,200 strong crowd. 

Chaired by Andrew Neil, arguing to remain were former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg MP, former Labour leadership contender Liz Kendall MP and former Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna MP. Representing the Brexit side of the debate were Conservative Euro MEP Dan Hannan, UKIP leader Nigel Farage MEP and backbench Labour stalwart Kate Hoey MP.

Rather than provide a ‘he said/she said’ report and analysis on the debate which The Spectator has itself provided, what struck me was the way these experienced politicians crafted and delivered their messages and the lessons that this can provide for corporate leaders. The differing styles and emphases adopted by the various speakers offered a sharp reminder about some of the key communications principles leaders should never lose sight of:

1. Be clear and direct

Clarity and succinctness are vital in ensuring your messages are understood. Dan Hannan and Nigel Farage have based their careers around making the case to leave the European Union. Their arguments and speeches were honed, direct and clear, as you would expect. Contrast that to Nick Clegg. You would think that after five years as Deputy Prime Minister, and having gone head-to-head with Nigel Farage in televised debates on Europe that he would be able to make a concise presentation. But his speech seemed unprepared and meandering, and therefore diminished its impact.

2. Let your main points resonate

Kate Hoey, speaking third, was the first to be interrupted with applause after making strong points regarding the EU’s perceived democratic deficit, as well as about President Obama’s intervention into the debate. However, she spoke too quickly, often without changing her intonation. This made it difficult to follow and meant that some of the power of her points was lost.

3. Be sincere and passionate

Liz Kendall rooted her speech in Labour traditions before expanding to cover the main themes and messages of the ‘Remain’ campaign. It afforded her words a sincerity and passion which demanded a fair hearing.

4. Use humour

Both Chuka Umunna and Dan Hannan used humour to ridicule the opposing argument. This allowed them to make serious points, but in a softer, less confrontational way, thereby cutting through in a way they might not have otherwise achieved.

5. Know your audience, be nimble

It goes without saying that your messages must be authentic, but you have to tailor them to your listener. One might readily assume some of the political prejudices of a 2,200 strong Spectator audience, but those attending the London Palladium were still in the main a London metropolitan audience which typically is more liberal on immigration policy. Nigel Farage’s speech still referenced immigration, but unlike other speeches that he has made during the referendum campaign, it was much more balanced with other points around democratic sovereignty and free trade at the fore, and more effective for it.

6. Know your arguments and counter arguments

There is a blizzard of facts and figures hotly contested by the two referendum campaigns and you would expect experienced politicians to be sufficiently agile to defend their positions. But several times they were left floundering when easily anticipated alternative facts were presented.

Liz Kendall and Nick Clegg struggled to answer questions about how the UK can control her borders given freedom of movement rules. Chuka Umunna was thrown when it was put to him that non-EU Switzerland had signed free trade agreements worth €40 trillion compared to the EU’s €7 trillion worth of deals. Likewise, Kate Hoey had nothing to say regarding the economic risk of leaving the EU which has dogged the Brexit campaign since the start of the campaign.

Similarly, you have to make sure that your messages are robust and evidence based and you know the counter arguments so that you can defend them.

7. Be prepared, but not over prepared

When delivering any message or presentation you have to know your stuff, but there is a balance to be struck. Under-prepare and you will not be in command of the messages you want to convey, but over-prepare and you risk sounding like a robot or appearing far too slick.

In answering his questions, Dan Hannan’s ability to employ facts, figures and dates at will gave the impression he was a bit too clever. Likewise, Chuka Umunna bordered on the oleaginous.  By contrast, Nick Clegg’s speech seemed unambitious, resorting too often to generalities and cliché.

Even the most practiced politicians need a plan, tailored to the opportunity and to practice.
Good Relations offer communications training that helps our clients maximise their impact in many of the challenging situations they will face.  From parliamentary inquiries and broadcast media interviews, through to company presentations and town hall meetings.

Please contact Neil if you are interested in our approach and experience to discuss how we can help:

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